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Friday 20th October: Queenstown to Oban - SUPERGROOVE "Can't Get Enough"

We woke up early to repack our backpacks in readiness for the three-day walk we had planned for Saturday. This, coupled with tidying the camper delayed our departure until just before 10am.

Before leaving Queenstown, we made a short stop at an indoor mini-golf course that we'd seen the day before. The course had holes designed with complex mechanisms designed to add confusion. It was a tough course. I hit a '10' on the first hole to Jenny's '4', putting me on the back foot immediately. The official scorecard reported a tie, though a win to Jenny was more likely.

Then we were back on the road. Heading due South, past the last fringes of Queenstown and the neighbouring Lake Wakatipu and then past the Remarkables Ski fields and onwards towards the wide, huge open plains of Southland. On the way, we passed the tiny model railway in Kingston where a little steam train ploughs the far North end of the former branch line from Invercargill for the local tourist population.

From Kingston, the road basically went straight South, with a very occasionally turn to avoid a hill or a house. One by one, we drove through rural Southland towns - Dipton, Athol, Winton - with wide, yellowing fields stretching away forever to the East and West. The miles ticked by quickly and we soon reached the big smoke of the South Coast's main City, Invercargill.

Invercargill is a sizeable city by Kiwi standards; its population of 70,000 putting it in the top ten New Zealand cities by population. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the attractions to match its population - there's very little to do.

A picture from Invercargill. Not too sure what the point of this super-sized umbrella is - I'm presuming its just art?? Two Thumbs Fresh!

We wandered around for a short time, picking up lunch at the bizarrely fitted Zookeeper's Cafe. We then walked to the local DoC office to check on our walking plans before a similarly quick trip to the i-Site. Then it was back in the van and heading South again to the ferry terminal at Bluff. Bluff is a dump - 'nuff said. It was here we were due to catch a boat across the Foveaux Strait to the third main island of New Zealand, Stewart Island.

We parked up and had an hour long or so wait at the Ferry Terminal. The terminal was busy considering the small size of the catamaran to cross the strait. Unfortunately, the strong winds were making the straits very choppy. Also, a large scout group was taking the same crossing as us. Problem.

As the boat started to cross the strait, it became clear that several of the scouts could not cope very well with the crossing. There was vomit left, right and centre - increasing as we crossed. The smell eventually reached our nostrils making us feel a little nauseous too. We did make it all the way without throwing up, but with a great deal of difficulty.

Once in Oban (Halfmoon Bay), the only town on Stewart Island, it was a short, easy paced walk to the Stewart Island Backpackers. The backpackers was a rowdy place thanks to a group of middle-aged people from the Waikiwi Darts Club. We cooked up a can of soup, wrapped up warm and headed to the quayside again.

It was time for a Kakapo Encounter.

A Kakapo is a very rare, unusual bird. There are currently only 86 Kakapo left in the world. All of these are closely managed by the DoC and the Kakapo Recovery Group. The public NEVER get to see them. That was until September 2006. A single Kakapo, Sirocco, was taken to Ulva Island and visits by the public in arranged guided groups were allowed for a period of six weeks before the Kakapo breeding season begun.

So. Why is a Kakapo so special?

There are many reasons for this. They are the world's only nocturnal parrot, the world's largest parrot (over 65cm in length), the heaviest parrot (up to 3.5 kilograms) and the only parrot with an arena breeding system. This is where a male bird constructs a bowl from where he will make a very deep-pitched 'booming' sound. The bowl amplifies the sound to enable the Kakapo to attract mates. They are also the only flightless parrot. 100 years ago, Kakapo were so common that you could shake a tree and Kakapos would fall out of them like coconuts. This certainly isn't the case anymore and for a while during the 1970s, they were thought to be extinct.

Anyway, being a fan of New Zealand native wildlife and parrots, and coincidentally being on holiday in Southland at the right time, I couldn't turn down a visit to see Sirocco.

The trip to Ulva Island was led by a very patronising, slightly strange woman called - funnily enough - Ulva.

The little Aurora Charter vessel left Oban Harbour a little behind schedule with a party of about 30 Kakapo watchers. The party was a real mixed bag. Middle aged people, kids, backpackers, the Kakapo fans and just those who were curious. Considering how rough the crossing of the straits had been, the sailing to Ulva Island was very quick and calm.

Aye. That's better, that's Tetley A view from the boat over to Ulva Island, looking towards the outlying houses of Oban settlement.

By the time we got to Ulva, the dark was rapidly encroaching. The tension was slowly building as we walked inland towards the hidden Kakapo enclosure. Eventually, we took a walk off the beaten track and into the bush. After five minutes off the track, we could see a dim light up ahead, shining out of the increasing veil of darkness.

The enclosure was about 3 to 4 metres in diameter. The walls were made of wood up to about a metre in height. Over this, there was about 3 metres of Perspex that could be seen through. There was no canopy over the enclosure as Sirocco obviously couldn't fly to escape. And there he was. Sitting on a branch across the face of the Perspex. A huge green and black streaked feathery mess with a bright white disc of feathers on his face. He was much bigger than I'd expected. His face shone out in the dark as he paced up and down the branch, parading for admiring onlookers.

Easy, big fella! Sirocco the Kakapo - close up and personal. Nicely highlights his 'owl-like' face of white feathers.

We stood and watched and took flashless photographs for a fair while. Then Sirocco's handler went into the pen to feed him some grapes and give him his daily weigh in. He clocked in at 3.16 kilograms. A big, heavy bird.

He then proceeded to clamber, climb and wander around his pen for the onlookers. Then he started to puff his chest out and make some very deep gurgling noises. We were informed that this was 'pre-booming' setting himself up for the coming breeding season.

Then, more bizarrely, we were given the 'opportunity' to smell Kakapoo. This is because it smells very sweet and vaguely herby. Interesting, if still somewhat unpalatable.

Then it was time to go. Quickly as we'd arrived, it was time to leave. I pressed my nose up against the Perspex and Sirocco replied in kind. I then reluctantly left.

A photo taking in the whole of Sirocco. Unfortunately, the small size of the photo really doesn't show just how big Sirocco was/is. Aw! He's sooo cute!

Back on the boat, we were shown and allowed to feel some Kakapo feathers and find out for ourselves just how soft they are. The rest of the boat journey back to Oban was subdued and quiet. Not much was said. Before too long, we were back at port and then at the backpackers for bed.

It is also important to mention that on the Kakapo Encounter, there was a film crew from the television show "What Now?", a children’s programme from New Zealand. They were also taking the rare opportunity to film such a rare bird. It was funny watching the young Maori presenter gesticulate wildly and talk slowly and patronisingly about his subject, as seems to be the style of modern children’s television presenters. Their section on the Kakapo was due to be part of a live programme from Oban on Sunday morning. We were bound to miss this live transmission though due to our scheduled walk for the next three days.

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